Last week I saw a documentary called Helvetica, which explored the history and culture of typefaces, and the sans-serif Helvetica font in particular. It got me thinking more about the almost sub-conscious power of the fonts used in the writing all around us, and the ones I use myself. (It’s a fun and elegant documentary by the way, and not at all as boring or geeky as it might sound.)

Coincidentally, a couple of days later I came across a blog posting called The Secret Lives of Fonts, in which the author reviewed 52 papers he wrote for university courses and found that on average he got better grades on the ones where he used serif fonts than on the ones where he used sans-serif fonts. He writes:

Well, would you believe it? My essays written in Georgia did the best overall. This got me thinking as to why that might be: maybe fonts speak a lot louder than we think they do. Especially to a professor who has to wade through a collection of them; Times seems to be the norm, so it really doesn’t set off any subconcious triggers. Georgia is enough like Times to retain its academic feel, and is different enough to be something of a relief for the grader. Trebuchet seems to set off a negative trigger, maybe just based on the fact that it’s not as easy to read in print, maybe on the fact that it looks like something off a blog rather than an academic journal. Who knows.

What fonts do you use, and have you noticed patterns like these? Professors and TAs, do you have typeface preferences for the papers you need to grade? Is there something to this?

Myself, I like Verdana, but I’m mostly reading my own words on screens now. Maybe I should think again and change the font just before I print it out…

 

2 Responses to Do serif fonts get you better grades?

  1. That is great! Of course, running rigorous tests for this would take some effort, but that sounds like a PhD for some psych major right there.

  2. Gawrsh! When I was in school–back when the Beatles were just starting to play in Hamburg–we only had “typewriters.”
    I tended to get graded down if I corrected my typos (spelling errors) in handwriting, instead of retyping the whole page. I was never affluent enough to hire a typist for my own term papers –a common practice back then, before “word-processing.”

    In graduate school–for us English majors and aspiring literature professors (Ha!) –we were encouraged to use something called the MLA Style Sheet. –an exceedingly anal publication, for what often turns out to be a very anal “profession.”

    When I think of academic writing, three or four nouns or adjectives usually come to mind: ego, fear, insecurity, anger, revenge, dismay..
    The younger the writer is, the less “subsumed” these emotions tend to be.
    Once this reaches the professional level, all bets are off. When I read what passes for scholarly discourse in the humanities –especially in literature studies, I am usually struck by the gawdawful preponderance of pretentious verbal gibberish and opaque prose that gets into print. (And seems to be encouraged and rewarded by the “Academy” in some kind of Pavlov-conditioning fashion.)
    The motive behind this kind of academic writing almost always seems to be for a very insecure writer to try to make his readers feel stupid, and even more insecure or unhappy than he himself is.
    No wonder satirists have such a field day with the academic world and its products!
    In recent years “Post-modernism” has been the target of many well-aimed barbs. But there are many other such intellectual bulls-eyes, all hemmorhaging dismally obtuse verbal non-content and nonsense.
    Just a humble thought.
    P.S. I saw the Helvetica movie and really liked it. Suggest you volunteer for this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. –EA

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